Commitment to Care Spans Three Generations

By Grant Martin

Abner Bankston Riser (right) served as a military physician in north Africa during World War II.

One of the most surprising facts about the 150 years of public medical education in Alabama is that 100 of those years have involved the members of one extended family. Linked by marriage, the Risers and Sherrills of Birmingham include the largest number of alumni—13, stretching back to the earliest years of the 20th century—of any family in the school’s history.

Rise of the Risers

William H. Riser, M.D., graduated in 1908 from the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile, becoming the first member of his family to practice medicine in the state. Though he stayed in Mobile to begin his career, he eventually became the town doctor in Lafayette, Alabama, where he raised two daughters and four sons. Of those sons, three would become doctors: William “Billy” Riser Jr. (1936 alumnus), Abner Bankston Riser (1939 alumnus), and Arthur Franklin Riser (1942 alumnus).

“I remember hearing stories of how they worked their way through school by cleaning the furnace in the school’s basement, and sleeping on cots in the area around the furnace,” says Buster Riser, Abner Riser’s oldest son. “All three brothers went into internal medicine, and my uncle Billy was one of the original faculty members at UAB and the first chief of hematology.”

Buster Riser recalls how demanding his father’s career was and how his devotion to his patients often took him away from home on weekends and holidays. Though Buster decided against a career as a physician, two of his younger brothers, Thomas and John Riser, received their M.D.s from UAB in 1982 and 1984, respectively.

William Riser

“I think my father and grandfather were drawn simply to help other people,” says Buster, who now works in his brother John’s neurology practice. “They were gentle souls, and we were brought up in that atmosphere. There was never any pressure on any of us to be physicians, but we all saw the impact that medicine had on people’s lives, and my brothers decided to pursue it.”

Thomas “Tom” Riser recalls childhood “Sunday pilgrimages” to Lafayette, where he and his family would gather around the dinner table with his physician grandfather, father, and uncles, including radiologist Lester Glover (1957 alumnus). Later, he would accompany his father on rounds at University Hospital and work during the summer in his father’s office. Tom says those experiences gave him “an increasing regard for the privilege of serving people’s medical needs. No other profession offers the opportunity to get to know their innermost joys and struggles and to follow them down the roads of their lives.”

The family’s close connections with Alabama health care grew even stronger when Tom and John married women who were quite familiar with the unique family tradition. Tom Riser married Margaret Dick (1979 alumna), a second-generation doctor, and John married Emily Sherrill, a fellow neurologist with a rich medical history in her own lineage.

The Sherrill Legacy

John Doke Sherrill Sr.

John Doke Sherrill Sr. Photo courtesy of UAB Archives.

The son of a physician in Hartselle, Alabama, John Doke Sherrill Sr., M.D., made a name for himself as one of Birmingham’s first orthopaedic surgeons after graduating from Birmingham Medical College in 1915. He spent many years in the city working with children affected by the polio epidemic, and he would later become the School of Medicine’s first chief of orthopaedic surgery. Today an endowed chair in orthopaedics at UAB is named in his honor.

His son, John Sherrill Jr., M.D., enrolled in the school after he returned from fighting in Europe during World War II. He graduated in 1952, following his father into orthopaedic medicine and succeeding him as the orthopaedist for the University of Alabama football team.

“We married the week before he started medical school,” says Gloria Sherrill, widow of John Sherrill Jr. “He was always a very kind and loving person who liked to laugh and help people, and I think our children got some of that from him. Our son, Joe, always wanted to be a doctor, and he became an orthopedist. Our daughter, Emily, went to nursing school at Vanderbilt, but she came home one weekend and said she didn’t want to be a nurse.” She soon enrolled in the SOM to pursue a career as a physician. Another son, John Doke Sherrill III, also went into medicine, earning a degree from the University of South Alabama.

Joe, or Joseph Madden Sherrill, M.D., graduated from the SOM in 1975, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather as an orthopaedist. He later was a member of UAB’s orthopaedics faculty. In 1984 Emily earned her medical degree and broke somewhat from the family tradition by specializing in neurology. A year later, Jerry Frank Sherrill, their cousin and a grandson of John Doke Sherrill Sr., also went into neurology after graduating from the SOM; today he practices in South Carolina.

Above: William "Billy" Riser in his SOM office. At right: John Sherrill Jr. as a Tuscaloosa medical student. Photos courtesy of UAB Archives.

Two Families, One Tradition

Emily Sherrill met John Riser when they were both students at the SOM. Their marriage—three generations and nearly eight decades after William H. Riser graduated—brought the families together, linking two medical legacies that have cared for thousands of patients for more than a century. The couple has served on UAB’s neurology faculty, and today they share a practice in Homewood.

“Although my father never pressured me to pursue medicine, I knew from an early age my desire to become a physician,” says John Riser. “Then to marry and practice with a physician with a similar heritage has been quite remarkable.”

“John and I have been so fortunate to contribute to the practice of medicine and attribute our success not only to the pioneering spirit of our ancestors but also to the outstanding training we received at the SOM,” says Emily Sherrill Riser. “The impact these generations of physicians have had on the lives of individuals in Alabama is truly amazing, and it’s a tradition that we honor and feel humbled to be part of. For us, it is all about service to our patients and communities.”

At left, the current generation includes (left to right) Tom Riser, Margaret Dick Riser, John Riser, Emily Sherrill Riser, and Joe Sherrill. Click on the image below for an enlarged version of the family tree.
Riser, Sherrill family trees